Physicians give hospital chaplains high approval rating

These clerics can help meet patients' spiritual needs and advise families about end-of-life care decisions.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Nov. 10, 2009

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America's hospital chaplains just got a big nod of approval from the nation's physicians.

Nine in 10 doctors said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their experiences with chaplains, according to a survey of 1,144 U.S. physicians published in the Oct. 26 Archives of Internal Medicine (link).

Because of physicians' leadership roles, their views of chaplains are critical, said George Fitchett, PhD, the study's lead author and a chaplain at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"As a chaplain, I'm glad to see that physicians seem to be having positive experiences working with chaplains," said Fitchett, associate professor and director of research in Rush's Dept. of Religion, Health and Human Values. "Hopefully, it means that they'll continue to collaborate with chaplains to help care for patients where there's a need for chaplains' assistance."

Meeting patients' spiritual or religious needs during health crises increasingly is recognized as a key dimension of quality care. An Institute of Medicine panel recognized it as part of "patient-centered" care in 2002. Most medical schools now offer coursework on the connection between spirituality and health. About two-thirds of hospitals have chaplains, according to the American Hospital Assn.

Eighty-nine percent of the doctors surveyed had patients who were seen by chaplains. Because of the nearly universal praise for chaplaincy, there were no strong differences among demographic physician groups. That said, physicians who were more open to praying with patients also were more likely to be satisfied with chaplaincy services. Doctors whose previous experience with chaplains' impact on their patients was negative were less likely to be satisfied.

Fitchett said that aside from being physically vulnerable, hospitalized patients also may be experiencing spiritual turmoil.

"For a large number of people in the United States, religion and spirituality play an important role in helping them have a sense of identity that's not diminished by their illness," Fitchett said.

He said the importance medical schools and hospitals place on patients' spiritual needs may trickle down to how doctors view chaplains as members of the health care team. Chaplains also may help patients and families resolve disagreements over end-of-life care decisions.

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